Friday, December 5, 2008

rights and love

A friend of mine who is heavily involved in local gay and lesbian (etc.) advocacy and I have a running argument that I think has larger implications for what it means to be a part of a democratic society.

With regards to gay marriage, she constantly says "It's about love." To her, teaching people about the equal dignity and grace of gay love is an essential element to legalizing and protecting gay marriage. I don't see it that way.

Now, of course, on one level, it's about love. If not for gay love, there would be little reason for gay marriage, or at any rate, very few people wanting to take the plunge. As I hope is clear from the previous posts I've devoted to the issue, I believe in the equality of gay love without reservation. But in the specific tactical question, I don't think that convincing people of that equality is the best, most effective way for us to go about supporting the right of men to marry men and women to marry women. We need to be careful not to allow the fact of the very real gains we have made in this department in recent decades to delude us into thinking that there doesn't remain a large contingent of Americans who want nothing to do with gay people, who would prefer never to have to think about them at all, thanks. I don't know that we'll ever get them into the coalition, though I wish we could. More to the point, the more that we pressure them to come around to our point of view regarding gay love, the more it plays precisely into the notion that those supporting gay marriage are trying to force something on other people. The more we frame gay marriage as a question of an affirmative duty to honor gay love, the more it ensures a defensive reaction or backlash.

There are also people who have views about the preferred legal status of homosexuals that are perfectly consonant with mine, but who have never relinquished the "ick factor", on a social or moral level. Some people are far more comfortable with the notional idea of gay equality than they are with actual gay people. And look, who cares, at the end of the day? These people are natural allies. They're precisely the kind of people that the gay marriage movement has to incorporate as voters (if not organizers) if a national gay marriage movement is going to form and work. But I suspect that people who feel queasy about gay coupling even while they support gay equality would be squeezed out of my friend's movement based on respect for love.

There are some who say we don't need either type to get to 50% plus one. They may be right, and it may ultimately be the case that we need to simply say "see you later" to certain groups of voters. We aren't going to convince everyone. But if we define the groups of people who will never be in our coalition broadly rather than narrowly, we're engaging in exactly the kind of political suicide I see some conservatives engaging in now. It's like the gang at the Corner, pushing more and more people out of the conservative tent; as a tactic in democracy, that's lunacy. We don't need to draw tight definitions about who is or is not a righteous member of the community who supports gay marriage. We only need to ask, "Who believes in equal marriage rights for all consenting adults?" And then we need to use the tactics and methods available to us to help convince some of the people who answer negatively.

I think we should take a page from those promoting Prop 8, as a matter of fact, strange as that might seem. What was their primary media tactic? What did their television ads have in common? They reframed the argument by bringing up the ( bogus) claims that defeating Prop 8 would have meant losses of religious or parental freedoms for others. They co-opted the argument from freedom, and I genuinely believe that was the difference. My intuition is that there are far more Americans (and Californians) sensitive to the perception that some are being denied basic human rights than there are Americans or Californians who are fully comfortable with and committed to gay marriage rights. This is why the Yes on 8 ads, disingenuous though they were, were so effective; they cast the No on 8 people as the ones striving to deny citizens their rights, and even bigoted Americans tend to protect civil rights when they can. The failure to respond forcefully and effectively to these claims, if you ask me, is the greatest failure of the No on Prop 8 movement.

So, no, I don't think the political question is about love. I think it's about demonstrating to the American people that gay marriage is not a matter of enshrining special new rights for some minority but rather merely a question of equitably and fairly extending pre-existing rights to all people. We can't, in my estimation, use politics to make those not compelled to respect or love gay people do so.

Nor perhaps should we. As I try to be plain in saying, I am pretty close to an unreconstructed leftist, what you occasionally see referred to as a "paleoliberal". I do have, however, this conservatism within me, if it pleases you to call it that: I don't think that the government, or even society, should be in the business of conditioning emotional responses. If Helen and I have a point of symmetry in our dueling political visions, it's that government's job is to create the legal structures which give individuals fundamental "you shall nots" that create the space necessary for real human interactions, where the business of respecting or loving people who are not like you actually goes down. The state can't, in fact, create equal respect, it can only enforce legal tolerance. The notion that it should try to do more is creepy and borderline authoritarian. Politics is the art of the possible, but that doesn't mean that everything possible is prudent or should be pursued.

So where a politics of love? "Society", if it is to mean anything at all, is the product not of love between strangers, but in the recognition from one citizen that another is living a life himself, that he has aspiration and dreams and desires and wants. A straight man might be uncomfortable with the idea of gay love or gay sex, but if he can remember that gay people are living the same mad dream of American aspiration that he is, he may find within himself the strength to support that which he does not agree with. No, I don't want everyone to walk around in love with everyone else. I want them to walk around knowing that the love they feel for their friends, family and lovers is the same love that someone feels for the stranger walking beside them. Society can't be built with manners, rights, or rules alone, but by the recognition of this fact: that every life is someone's "my life". The most incurable, unapologetic bigot might never respect the gay people around him. He may be able to come to the notion that the gay people around him are ultimately as beholden to him as he is to them. That, I believe, is our project, not spreading love, but convincing our country of the natural consequences of the personal loves they already feel. It's worth fighting for.


The Abstracted Engineer said...

The simplest way, it seems to me, to get gay marriage legalized would be to use the "door in the face" sales method. Create legislation legalizing marriage between any two species of animal, any human and animal, and any human and inanimate object, and when social conservatives go agog, suggest a much less intense form of the legislation would be merely gay marriage. Because gay marriage doesn't seem so bad compared to the marriage of a man and a panda bear.

Anonymous said...

I could be wrong, but I believe the Yes on 8 campaign victory was purely tactical.

The NO campaign failed to anticipate black turnout for Obama and its lopsidedness. In addition, No on 8 volunteers describe the campaign as being disorganized. Finally, they believed the early poll numbers that showed No ahead. It appears that there is no Bradley effect, but there is a "gay marriage" effect.

Finally, the Yes on 8 folks were energized and organized. I suspect if the No campaign had been more organized, they would have won. In any case, they'll overturn in 2010 and it'll be all over. The short term demographic trends do not look friendly for social conservatives.

Other notes:

1) The No on 8 TV ads were odd and ineffective -- they also refused to actually use the word "gay" in the ads. It was like those weird drug commercials where they keep telling you to "ask your doctor" without actually referencing what they were advertising. If the No folks are so afraid the core issue is unpopular, they've given up the high ground.

2) The LGBT community has to learn a fundamental lesson: no one above 35 buys into the argument that this fight is equivalent to the African-American civil rights movement. No matter how true it is for the LGBT community, it just doesn't have the same moral resonance for the majority of the voting public. You don't get asked about the Stonewall riots on the US citizenship test, but you do get asked "Who is Martin Luther King, Jr.?"

*Government-approved answer: "A civil rights leader."

Anonymous said...

Anon2:31 is -K.

william randolph brafford said...

I have trouble convincing some people I know that anyone out there is making the argument you are trying to make. They are convinced that the LGBT equality movement has as its ultimate goal the use of state power to punish people who are not tolerant in the politically correct manner. And they don't want to compromise with such a movement, for understandable reasons. This is the backlash you're talking about.

In response, I use a version of the strategy that you (Freddie) outline here when I argue for civil marriages (or, sometimes, civil unions only, for everyone).

Also, I think you've done a really great job on that last paragraph; it sums up your consistent position and puts it in a new light at the same time.

Zack said...

So the gay rights movement should be less focused on the positive liberty of gays to marry and more concerned with the negative liberty of there not being any restrictions on the right to marry whomever one chooses?

I do think, however, that this particular argument seems to miss the main factor driving growing acceptance of gays and gay marriage, which is ordinary day-to-day interaction. The more people think of this debate as reflecting actual people, rather than an abstract category labeled "homosexuals," the more powerful the argument for -- for -- gay marriage gets. While rights talk is clearly important to the project of gay acceptance, it might also have the problematic effect of keeping too much of the argument on the theoretical plane.

Jan Rogozinski said...

When I was a kid (at least 40 years before you were), the pre-Vatican II nuns would tell us before we wrote our exams that "neatness counts."

Which includes not telling falsehoods even in good causes. I reference here your comment about "enthusiastic sodomy among the Spartans."

In fact, none of the Greeks tribes was "enthusiastic" about sodomy. In the dialogs, Socrates thought love of the body was only the first step in rising toward a nonsexual love of Beauty in the abstract. In the Republic, he condemned sodomy. And Aristotle also thought sexual attraction an inferior form of love (philia). The highest form of love, A said, is that between two excellent men who love each other's excellence --not each other's buttocks.

And that was the Athenians! The Spartans, in fact, loathed sodomy. (At least officially; no doubt there were in-the-closet sodomites there also, as there are today among Republican senators.)

And among the pagan Romans, sex was a matter of power--who penetrates whom. It was OK for a male citizen to penetrate either his male or his female slaves, for example; but a male citizen who was found out to be the "bottom"/penetrated was considered both ridiculous and disgusting/loathsome.

One of the odd things about the study of classical history is how much better it has gotten since World War I, as Latin and Greek disappeared from schools. It seems almost as if the historians have become more accurate and more interesting precisely because the number of those reading them has declined.

Two good recent studies of ancient love are the textbook Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture by Marilyn Skinner and the more popularizing (in a good sense) Eros: The Myth of ancient Greek Sexuality by Bruce Thornton.

The concept that sexual intercourse between two lovers is a sacrament and a source of grace (identical, for example, to receiving Communion or the Eucharist)first was invented--and it could only arise--in a culture totally saturated with Christianity. It was, in fact, invented about 1100 by William, Duke of Aquitaine (grandfather of the better-known Eleanor). But that is another and very long story.